Shawnee Smith and I had one last conversation on camera before she and her film crew left. We sat side by side in the swing on my front porch and talked about the weekend. I thanked her sincerely for helping me to have a different perspective on some things I’ve struggled with since I’ve been home — family things, I mean. After we finished filming, the crew was packing up their gear, and I was standing around when I noticed that a dragonfly had lit on the swing’s chain, next to Shawnee. It was so beautiful, and it seemed somehow to symbolize the grace that visited our town this weekend in the person of this film crew. Let me explain.
Yesterday at the crawfish boil, I think at least several of us in our little mission parish were surprised to see ourselves through the eyes of this film crew. They really seemed impressed by what they saw. One of them said to me before they left, “Thank you for everybody’s hospitality. We just don’t get this in California.” Nobody did anything extraordinary, at least not by our standards; we just cooked for everybody and showed them a good time, and in context of our life and worship here. In so doing, Shawnee told me later, we have become an icon of what it means to follow Christ as Orthodox Christians, and to love each other. “You have all built something really special here,” she said.
And so we have. It’s so easy to get caught up in the daily struggles of life in a mission parish, and to be distracted by all the things that aren’t what we wish they were. But then a moment will come when circumstances force you to step back and see yourselves as others see you, and you may find that for all the difficulties you face individually and collectively, God is doing something really beautiful in you and through you. I’ve heard from several members of the parish that they felt really inspired by the weekend’s events. That was the film crew’s gift to us.
And here was their particular gift to me, or rather, Shawnee’s. She helped me see the things I’ve been going through here through different eyes, and helped me to understand better why love requires renouncing any expectation of justice. As I mentioned yesterday, Shawnee loves Little Way, and hopes to play Ruthie in the TV series a producer is hoping to do of the book. She wanted to meet Mam and Paw, and Mike and his daughters. And so she did, at the crawfish boil. My folks invited her over after the crawfish boil to see where Ruthie grew up. Observing my Mom and Dad, and Mike and Rebekah, through her eyes gave me a different vision. Things too intimate to talk about now, but let me say that Shawnee saw something I never had, and when she told me, I had no words. It was one of those moments I’ll remember for all my life. Her words — they were just two lines — were like an incantation that revealed a hidden door, a door into the future. Now I have to see if I have the courage and the humility to open it and walk through.
Sitting on the front porch this morning, before they left, she recalled all the things she had seen and heard and done in St. Francisville this weekend, and said, “Why would anybody want anything more in life than what you have here?” It was what I saw in Ruthie’s story. It’s why I wrote Little Way. Listening to Tim Lindsey and Abby Temple Cochran in my kitchen on Friday night telling Shawnee stories, in front of the camera, about Ruthie, and the love this town showed for her, was like encountering these old familiar tales as something new. My eyes have been staring at them for two or three years, but the eyes of the camera brought them back to life. I don’t know why that is, but it is. I thought: This is a real place, and this place is for real. It was a re-enchantment of sorts. All of it.
I really hope the TV series gets made, and that it gets filmed here, and that Shawnee has a role in it. My family loved her, and it was my impression that she really, deeply understands them, and the beauty at the heart of Ruthie’s story. She came here to make a documentary about Orthodoxy, but meeting the friends and family who loved Ruthie, and who she first got to know through Little Way, and seeing the town where Ruthie lived, and experiencing the special kindness and generosity of the people of our town and parish — well, I could tell it made a strong impression on her. How many other actors who want to play a part make a point of spending time with the people in the story, even before there’s a role? That meant so much to my mom and dad, I can tell you. Anything that shows them that their Ruthie is remembered and celebrated and loved by people who never knew her brings them comfort and joy.
Before the crew left, they got in a lunch at Hot Tails, the must-stop eat place in our part of the world. They adored it. The producer gazed upon the magnificence of his lunch and said: “A Southern-fried pork chop sandwich!” as if he had been served a Fabergé egg. The guys were sharing their food around, raving about it. Shawnee got her hands all messy eating the barbecue shrimp. Here’s a view from our table:
They took such good care of us at Hot Tails, and were first-rate ambassadors for Louisiana cuisine and hospitality. Everybody around the table, no doubt high on bread pudding, had to try on my nerdball French glasses:
On the way back to the house, they stopped by Miss Emily’s house to buy some of the pralines she makes in her kitchen. Here are Shawnee and Miss Emily. I told Miss Emily to get ready for the Walker Percy Weekend, because everybody’s going to want to buy her pralines:
Back at the house, we all had our goodbyes, and took pictures. Here’s Lucas with the crew:
Those guys were golden to Lucas. They told him he would get a production credit for all the help he gave them. He just beamed, I mean beamed. He was especially fond of Joe Ascioti, the director of photography, who is a fellow paintball fanatic:
After the guys left for the airport, Lucas cried and cried, like he had lost his best friends. You never really know how much you can do for a kid by simply being nice, and making them feel like they matter to you. Two hours later, Lucas said of Joe, through tears, “I love him more than ever!” That sweet kid and his raw heart. I texted Shawnee about how much it moved me to see how those men made Lucas feel loved and special. She said, “Me too. This is the reason to be alive.”
Grace, like a dragonfly.